The best books on ancient Greek history

Robin Waterfield Author Of Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece
By Robin Waterfield

Who am I?

I’m a British scholar – a former university lecturer, many moons ago – now living in rural southern Greece. In fact, I have Greek as well as UK citizenship, which really pleases me because I’ve loved Greece and things Greek since boyhood. I started to learn ancient Greek at the age of ten! I’ve written over fifty books, mostly on ancient Greek history and philosophy, including many volumes of translations from ancient Greek. But I’ve also written children’s fiction in the form of gamebooks, a biography, a book on hypnosis, a retelling of the Greek myths (with my wife Kathryn) ... I’ll stop there!

I wrote...

Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece

By Robin Waterfield,

Book cover of Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

I had two main objectives in writing the book. In recent decades, there has been a great deal of movement in the various disciplines that fuel such a book – history, archaeology, art history, and so on – and it was time to catch the general reading public up with ancient Greece’s new look. So my book is, firstly, an accessible and up-to-date history of ancient Greece from about 750 BCE to 30 BCE. But, secondly, I raised the question: seeing that the Greeks recognized themselves as kin, as all Greeks together, why were they so often at war with one another? Why did it take them so long to achieve any degree of unity, and what factors brought it about? I’ve written the book as a chronological history, and the issues relating to these questions are a kind of golden thread throughout the book. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction

Why did I love this book?

This is an outstanding short introduction to Greek history – with a really neat gimmick. Instead of writing a standard kind of history, Cartledge picks on the eleven most prominent cities of ancient Greece and writes up their story in about ten or twelve pages. But the chapters are also organized chronologically, so that the first two cities, Cnossos and Mycenae, illustrate Greek prehistory. Then we move on to the Archaic Period (four places, including Sparta), then the Classical Period (three, including Athens), and then the Hellenistic period (one: Alexandria, the greatest city in the world before Rome). He ends with a leap into late antiquity and the eastern Roman empire with Byzantium. I’m always on the lookout for books that can turn people on to Greek history, get them to share my (and Cartledge’s) passion: this one does it brilliantly.

By Paul Cartledge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ancient Greece as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The contribution of the Ancient Greeks to modern western culture is incalculable. In the worlds of art, architecture, myth, literature, and philosophy, the world we live in would be unrecognizably different without the formative influence of Ancient Greek models.

Ancient Greek civilization was defined by the city - in Greek, the polis, from which we derive 'politics'. It is above all this feature of Greek civilization that has formed its most enduring legacy, spawning such key terms as aristocracy, oligarchy, tyranny and - last but by no means least - democracy.

This stimulating Very Short Introduction to Ancient Greece takes…

Book cover of The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World

Why did I love this book?

This is a fat book, but almost unputdownable. What could be more fundamental to understanding the world of the ancient Greeks than finding out how many of them there were, and how they worked the land? We are learning more and more about the uses of the countryside, especially from survey archaeology, in which walkers systematically transect a given area of land. A good eighty or ninety percent of all ancient Greeks made a living (not necessarily a good one) through agriculture. The issues involved in trying to determine, say, the overall population of Greece in 500 BCE, or the pattern of land use in Athens, or the annual rates of cereal productivity, are complex, but Sallares steers us through the evidence with a sure hand.

By Robert Sallares,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A pioneering study in historical population biology, this book offers the first comprehensive ecological history of the ancient Greek world. It proposes a new model for treating the relationship between the population and the land, centering on the distribution and abundance of living organisms.

Women in the Classical World

By Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, H.A. Shapiro

Book cover of Women in the Classical World

Why did I love this book?

A team of experts got together to create this wonderful book. It is well illustrated, clearly written throughout, and firmly based on textual and other evidence. That is, the authors typically start with a general statement such as “There were increased opportunities for women to be educated in the Hellenistic world,” and then go on for a few pages to show how this came about by translating and commenting on the relevant texts, and showing the relevant vase paintings. Ancient Greek history tends to be very male-oriented – almost all ancient Greek writing was done by men, for instance – so this book is a much-needed antidote.

By Elaine Fantham, Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, H.A. Shapiro

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women in the Classical World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

BL The only study to integrate such a wide range of materials on the women of ancient Greece and Rome into one accessible volume BL Written by a team of distinguished classical scholars and art historians Women in the Classical World gathers the most important primary written and visual sources on the lives of ancient women and presents them in a chronological sequence, within their historical and cultural contexts.

Book cover of Interstate Relations in Classical Greece: Morality and Power

Why did I love this book?

Anyone with any degree of acquaintance with ancient history knows that the Greeks were often at war with one another. This book explores the rules that governed their interactions. Was there any kind of international law? If so, was any of it actually written down, or did it exist at the level of “unwritten law” – a live issue even today? How was it enforced, and by whom? There was no United Nations in those days. Did it succeed in reducing belligerence among the Greeks? Or was the only principle that might is right, so that stronger cities had the right to subdue their weaker neighbours? These are all critically important questions for understanding the Greeks and the course of their history. Overall, the book argues that the Greeks were more moral and restrained in their dealings with one another than one might have guessed.

By Polly Low,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Interstate Relations in Classical Greece as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this book Dr Low explores the assumptions and principles which determined the conduct and representation of interstate politics in Greece during the fifth and fourth centuries BC. She employs a wide range of ancient evidence, both epigraphic and literary, as well as some contemporary theoretical approaches from the field of International Relations. Taking a thematic rather than a chronological approach, she addresses topics such as the nature of interstate society in the Greek world; the sources, scope and enforcement of 'international law'; the nature of interstate ethics and morality; interventionism and imperialism; and the question of change and stability.…

Book cover of The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 B.C.

Why did I love this book?

At the very end of the sixth century BCE, the Athenians took a leap of faith and turned their city into the first democracy – or proto-democracy, anyway: much tweaking went on over subsequent decades. In terms of European history as a whole, this has probably been the most important event to come out of ancient Greece. It has of course been much studied – so it is remarkable that Anderson’s book is filled with fresh insights into the background of the “Athenian experiment,” what actually happened, and why. The results are often surprising. Above all, he demonstrates that it was not a bottom-up spontaneous revolution by the masses, but a deliberate piece of social engineering by members of the Athenian elite.

By Greg Anderson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Athenian Experiment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In barely the space of one generation, Athens was transformed from a conventional city-state into something completely new--a region-state on a scale previously unthinkable. This book sets out to answer a seemingly simple question: How and when did the Athenian state attain the anomalous size that gave it such influence in Greek politics and culture in the classical period? Many scholars argue that Athens's incorporation of Attica was a gradual development, largely completed some two hundred years before the classical era. Anderson, however, suggests that it is not until the late sixth century that we see the first systematic attempts…

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Interested in Ancient Greece, Greece, and Athens?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Ancient Greece, Greece, and Athens.

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We think you will like Athens, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, and Democracy if you like this list.